Prologue

Dear Reader,

I struggled with the name of my blog. I wanted a title that was simple yet not cliché, original yet familiar, and personal yet universal. I eventually settled on a name that described the purpose of the blog: to document my journey through the course “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and Arts in Muslim Cultures” taught by the eminent religious scholar Ali Asani. I was drawn to this course because it taught religion in a way that made sense to me. I was raised in strict Pentecostal households in Kumasi, Ghana, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although I come from a devout Christian family and the majority of my closest friends are Christian, I do not identify as a person of faith. I believe that this is because I was never given the space and freedom to explore religion and faith in a way that made sense to me. I challenged myself this academic year to approach these topics differently. As the title states, this blog is my journey of understanding islam through art.

The most important points from the course that the reader should keep in mind while engaging with my blog are the following four terms: Islam (with a capital I), islam (with a lowercase i), “loud” and “silent” Islam. In lectures, Professor Asani defined Islam as the name of the religion and Muslims (with a capital M) as the followers of the religion. Similarly, loud Islam is an ideology and identity associated with elites (ex. Political and religious leaders) who want to assert their power over a population. In contrast, islam is an act of faith “submission” to God and muslims are the people of faith who submit to God. Silent islam is a muslim’s individual relationship with God. Loud islam often polices, controls, and silences this relationship between the devotee and God. I implicitly and explicitly engaged with these terms in each of my posts. For clarity, in this prologue, I will use islam and muslim without italics to refer to these terms more broadly.

On the first day of class, I sat on the floor in the back of the lecture hall because I was embarrassingly late. I did not know if I was going to enroll in the course, so I scrolled through Instagram, a social media platform, while Professor Asani explained the goals of the course. I looked up from my phone when he asked, “How do you know what you know about islam?” As he continued the lecture, I quickly realized that popular conversations on American television and social media platforms influenced my perceptions of islam. These conversations often defined islam by what it is not instead of what it is. They maintained Christianity and Christians as the “norm” and islam and muslims as the “other.” I also realized that voices and perspectives from the global Muslim community are often missing from these discussions. I returned to this question throughout the course and reflected upon it in my blog posts. I encourage my readers to also reflect upon this question to affirm and challenge their perceptions of islam.

Like my blog, I organized the remainder of this prologue thematically. In the following six sections, I will discuss my artistic process and how they relate to my journey in the class. I will conclude with my final thoughts about the course, islam, and my personal growth.

Week 1: Understanding God Through His Creations

The first few weeks were a whirlwind! I missed the second and third lectures because I thought I was going to take a different course. When that course did not work out, I scrambled to catch up on the lectures that I missed. Even though I went through the lecture slides many times, I did not understand the majority of the fundamental concepts presented in class. I tried to understand these concepts through the lens of Christianity. This approach, however, only increased my confusion and frustration. In class, it seemed like everyone understood these concepts except for me. I know that I should have gone to office hours, but I could not even begin to articulate what I needed clarification on. I almost even dropped the course. Fortunately, though, there were some concepts that I was familiar with because of Christianity and islam’s shared religious histories.

I was drowning, so I threw myself a lifeline by renting the book Islam: An Introduction by the religious historian Annemarie Schimmel. The book explained the concepts enough for me to better engage in class. It made me realize that I could not rely on Christianity to understand islam; I needed to understand it on its own terms. I went through the previous lectures and my notes with this new approach. It was successful; I found my footing in the course by the fourth week.

There were many excerpts from the Qur’an that we read together in lecture. The one that resonated with me the most was from verse 2:164. The quotation describes the signs from God that only wise muslims could recognize. I reflected upon this quotation when I was standing at the end of a pier in Newport, Rhode Island over spring break. I had a similar moment later in the break when I was at a botanical garden in Montreal, Canada. When I looked at pictures from other places I have visited I realized that if I was a wise muslim, then I would recognize these moments as signs from the divine. Therefore, for my first blog post, I decided to put these signs together in a video. For those who are not “wise,” like myself, the video shows the beauty of nature.

Week 4: The Power of Muhammad

I spent two days on campus between my trips to Rhode Island and Canada. A snowstorm trapped me inside, so I passed the time by playing with the oil pastels I bought for class. The drawing is simple, but the process of blending the colors and outlining the shapes took the whole day. The finished product reminded me of the nascent muslim community in the Arabian Peninsula that the Prophet Muhammad brought together during his lifetime. The artistic process was a small glimpse of how long and difficult it was for him to bring these communities together to submit to God. In the drawing, each community is distinct, but the prophet binds them together to create one image.

The following day, I partially burned my drawing to represent the fracturing of the nascent muslim community after the death of the Prophet. I decided to burn it to play on the light symbolism that we frequently discussed in the course. The fire was a symbol of power and the divine. Even though it pained me to destroy the drawing, I felt powerful watching it go up in flames. The power trip I felt is representative of the power struggle between muslim elites who vied for political and religious authority after the prophet. Despite the power rush I felt, I stopped the fire before it consumed the drawing. This action is representative of the mercy and compassion of the light of God.

Week 5: Baba, When Will We Be Free?

Before spring break, I went to Professor Asani’s office hours to discuss questions I had about the midterm exam. The exam consisted of identifying ten concepts from a list of twenty-two from the course. I even surprised myself when I identified almost all of the concepts without referring to my notes. During the meeting, we also discussed how I could make an art piece about the Iranian taziyeh, a play that commemorates the death of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, at Karbala (in present-day Iraq). I thought more about our conversation and the taziyeh over the break.

I wrote the poem, “Baba, When Will We Be Free” on the plane back to Boston from Canada. There was a baby a few seats from me who cried herself to sleep on her exhausted mother’s lap. The child’s distress reminded me of Ali, Hussein’s six-month-old son, who died in his father’s arms at Karbala. The taziyeh mostly commemorates the suffering of Hussein, his mother Fatima, and his sister Zaynab at the forces of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya of the Umayyad tribe. It—perhaps inadvertently—mostly silences the suffering of Ali. I wrote this poem to remind readers of the distress and suffering children experience when Muslim communities fight to assert their power over others. This reminder is important in the context of the current persecution of muslim groups around the world, especially in countries that do not get as much American media coverage.

Week 9: The Dance of Paradise

After the midterm, we focused on Sufism, the esoteric mystical outlook of islam, for two weeks. Specifically, we focused on Sufi music, dance, and literature. I especially enjoyed these two weeks because I spent time more time in and out of class listening to music and watching videos. Even though I could not understand what they were saying, I could see the emotion and passion on their faces. As I swayed and tapped along to the music, I felt as though I was “experiencing” the islam the authors wrote about in the translated poems I read. I even downloaded “Tajdar-e-Haram” performed by the singer and actor Atif Aslam on my phone.

I experienced islam again when I participated in a dance workshop led by dancers from a production of The Conference of the Birds, one of the best-known works in Sufi poetry by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. The workshop, like the course, was not what I expected. The dancers emphasized expressing ourselves through movement and communicating through touch. After the workshop, I reflected on different ways of producing and conveying knowledge to myself and others about experiencing islam. I used these reflections to make the short film “The Dance of Paradise.”

One of the movies we watched in the course, The Color of Paradise by the Persian filmmaker Majid Majidi, inspired my film. The movie centers on Mohammad, a blind Persian boy who experiences the world through touch and sound. One of the most moving scenes was when he wailed that if God loved him, then he would not have made him blind. When he told a blind carpenter that he wanted to see God, the carpenter responded that God could not be seen but he could be felt everywhere. I combined these moments from the movie and the journey of the birds in The Conference of the Birds to find God to create a film about the spiritual journey of a woman with physical disabilities. At the end of the journey, she realized that God is everywhere and inside of herself. I intentionally left the video simple to allow viewers to construct their interpretations of the story.

Week 12: #SayHerName

We focused on more contemporary topics in the last four weeks of the course. I was more familiar with these topics, but I was cognizant of the bias in Western media about events like the creation of Pakistan and the Iranian Revolution. The conversations we had about the intersection of Muslim reform movements and women in islam were especially interesting. They complicated dominant narratives about these topics in the West by asking questions like, which women; which Islam; and which context. I asked similar questions in conversations with friends and family members about women and religion.

During one of the lectures, a quotation from Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan resonated with me. In the quotation, she states that if a muslim woman was declared half a man, then it was because the elites in power changed not islam. The quotation criticized elites who used muslim women and their bodies as the “objects” of their movements to institutionalize islam as an ideology for a nation-state. This loud Islam often sought to silence anyone who challenged their authority. The work of muslim women who protested against these ideologies even under the threat of violence and death inspired me. Unfortunately, this fight is global, ongoing, and not unique to muslim communities. I am involved in the #SayHerName movement which aims to raise awareness about the gender-based violence that black womxn face in America. I created “#SayHerName” to commemorate our intergenerational fight for the freedom and liberation of womxn from all forms of oppression.

Week 13: To God We Return

For the last piece, I connected my learning to tell a global story of unity. I included important moments, themes, and materials from the course that I did not explicitly engage with in the previous blog posts. The song “A Change is Gonna Come” by the African-American singer Sam Cooke is at the center of this piece. The song gives me hope that one day—perhaps in the afterlife—we will all put aside our differences and quests for power to recognize our collective humanity.

Conclusion

Even though an academic semester is not long in the context of a lifetime, I am proud of how much I learned and the art I produced in a short amount of time. I wanted this blog to be an extension of the new perspectives I gained from the course. There is not a specific “message” I want readers to walk away with after engaging with my blog. I do want readers to see that this was my journey of understanding the beauty and diversity in islam. As I said in the introduction, this course was the first time that I explored religion and faith in a way that makes sense to me. I hope to use this approach to explore other religions and faiths in the future. I am not sure where the journey will take me, but I am looking forward to it!

All the best,

Amma

Week 1: Constructions of Islam

Youtube Link to the video I made: https://youtu.be/y0qiVCJIrrQ.

In the second chapter of Professor Asani’s upcoming book Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam, he writes that one of the ideals that Muslims associate with their faith is a selfless love of God. According to legend, Rabia al-Adawiyya al-Basri (d. 801) was an embodiment of this ideal. One popular story states that she roamed the streets of present-day Iraq with a torch to destroy Paradise and a pitcher of water to extinguish hellfire to ensure that people were worshiping God based on unconditional love not the selfish hope or fear of the afterlife. She claimed that her only focus in life was loving God. Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273), one of the most influential Muslim mystics, popularized the idea of love “as a cosmic force that binds everything created thing to God.” However, only the keenest humans can see this love in God’s creation.

The Quranic verse 2:164 supports Rumi’s belief that every creation is a manifestation of God’s love. One translation of the verse is, “Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and of the day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for profit of humankind; in the rai which God sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that he scatters through the earth; in the change of winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; indeed are the signs for a people that are wise.”

I thought of this verse one evening when I was scrolling through pictures from my travels to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Newport, and Montreal over the past year. During my travels, I often find myself awestruck by the beauty of nature. When I share these pictures with friends and family some of them say, “Look at these gifts from God!” and “These images show the blessings of God.” Even though I am not religious, I understand why they made these comments. After some thought, I decided to make a short video of the pictures thus far that have left me speechless.

The video begins with the first line of the shahadah, the profession of faith, that all monotheists can proclaim. I did not include the other lines of the shahadah because I think seeing God through his creations cuts across religious lines. I broke the verse into five digestible sections interspersed with pictures related to each section. The song playing in the video is “Hypnotize” by the band Coldplay. It is the song I often find myself listening to when I am heavily moved by the beauty of nature. I ended the video with the basmala, an Islamic phrase, which is at the beginning of almost every chapter in the Qur’an and some Muslims say before embarking on any journey.

Week 4: Devotion to the Prophet Muhammad

All monotheists can proclaim the first line of the shahadah, the profession of faith, “There is no god but God.” However, only Muslims can proclaim the second line, “Muhammad is God’s messenger.” Therefore, the belief in Muhammad as the last prophet is an essential part of the Muslim identity. Before he began spreading God’s message, the Arabian Peninsula was filled with groups of people loosely bonded together by a common language and trade routes. Even though he faced immense resistance and persecution throughout his life, he was able to create a strong network of believers and non-believers bonded together by their devotion to him. He was the charismatic political and religious leader of the nascent Muslim community until his death in 632.


This drawing is called, “The Power of Muhammad.” The political and religious authority of the Prophet is represented by the black line that flows throughout the drawing. The groups of groups on the Arabian Peninsula are represented by the free forming shapes in shades of red and green. These shapes are defined and connected by the black line to create one image like how Muhammad created a strong network of people on the peninsula.

After the death of the Prophet, the network began to break. Some groups that were only loyal to the Prophet wanted to break away from the larger community. His death left a political and religious void in the nascent Muslim community and a crisis about who should succeed him. This crisis eventually led to a destructive civil war and deep fractions which resulted in different “communities of interpretation.” Two dominant communities in Islam are Sunni and Shia. I decided to partially destroy the drawing to represent the crisis and violence that occurred after the death of Muhammad. The hole in the middle is the void that his death left. However, the black line is still visible in the drawing, because despite their difference, their faith and love for the Prophet still bond them together.

Week 5: Iranian Taziyeh

On the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims gather to commemorate one of the greatest tragedies in all of Islamic history. On that day, Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the leader (imam) of the Shia Muslim community, was brutally killed by the army of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya at Karbala (in present-day Iraq). When Hussein and his followers refused to surrender to Yazid, the army held them at a siege in Karbala without food and water for ten days. On that fateful tenth day, Hussein led a small army into battle. They were all slaughtered without mercy. Among those martyred was Ali Asghar, the six-month-old son of Hussein. During the battle, Hussein cried out to the army to spare him and give him some water. The army responded to his cries by shooting an arrow at his neck and pinning him to his father’s arm.

I was moved by the story of Ali. There was nothing he did in his six months of life that could justify his death. The discussions in class and the lectures about the battle mainly focused on Hussein, Fatima (his mother), and Zaynab (his sister). I decided to write this poem with Ali as the narrator to commemorate his martyrdom. I intended for the poem to be the final conversation between Ali and Hussein just before he died. I used descriptive and emotive language so the reader could emphasize with Ali in the final moments of his life.

The first stanza begins with the line, “Baba, when will we be free,” which he asks his father twice throughout the poem. Then he describes five freedoms he wished thirst, hunger, war, pain, and suffering did not take away from him. In the second stanza, he describes a dream he had about what freedom looks like. In the dream, he returned home and forgave all those who persecuted him and his family. He draped a cloth around the shoulders of his former enemies like how the Prophet Muhammad draped his cloak around the Meccan poet Ka’b when he asked him for forgiveness. He only wanted to live in peace with the other Muslim communities.

In the third stanza, he describes how these dreams only contributed to his suffering. Before he died, he asks his father again about when they will be free like the arrow flying through the sky. Even though the arrow ultimately ended his life, to him it represented freedom because it finally ended his suffering in the material world. The arrow gave him the answer to his question; they would be free in the afterlife. This ending relates to a theme in Shia theology that the righteous are always the ones to suffer, but they will get their reward in the afterlife.

Week 9: The Ghazal (love lyric) and Mathnawi (narrative epic)

Link to the video: https://youtu.be/4VZ02CiCRlU.

Sufism is a term that changes depending on the person who is defining it. It encompasses many identities, rituals, and practices. It also has political, social, economic, and aesthetic manifestations across the Muslim world. Broadly speaking, it is a journey of establishing a relationship with God that crosses the boundary between humans and the divine. The journey is a process of self-transformation in which the individual must annihilate their egotistical self until the only ego that remains is that of God. Only a select few become one with God. Those that do can become shaykhs (pirs), teachers, who guide others on their own spiritual journeys. Sufi shaykhs played an important role in spreading Islam.

In Sufi literature, the authors express their experience with the divine using poetic language such as symbols, metaphors, and allegories. One of the best-known works of Sufi literature is the narrative epic poem (mathnawi) The Conference of the Birds (Manteq at-Tair) by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. The poem is about birds of the world who follow the hoopoe to find their king (the Simorgh). The birds’ initial excitement dissipated once the hoopoe described the seven valleys on their journey: Quest, Love, Knowledge, Contentment, Unity, Wonder, Poverty and Annihilation. These valleys are similar to the “stations” Sufis go through on their spiritual enlightenment. Only thirty birds complete all the valleys and go to the court of the Simorgh. When they are finally admitted to the court of the Simorgh, they realize that they were the Simorgh. The end is a pun because only thirty (si) birds (morgh) complete the journey.

I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the poem and a workshop with the dancers from the production. During the performance and workshop, I intimately experienced how dance and music can convey a story—even without words. During the workshop, Wendy Jehlen, a professional dancer and Professor Asani’s former student, stressed the importance of including the narratives of people with disabilities. My friend who broke her leg showed me first hand how difficult it can be to navigate spaces that are inaccessible. She left her wheelchair in my room, so I used to highlight the experience of people with physical disabilities in the film.

The short film “The Dance of Paradise” follows the spiritual journey of a woman. In the beginning, she believes that God had abandoned her because she believed that if he loved her, then he would not have taken away her ability to walk. Then she falls out of the wheelchair. Out of despair, she prays to God to help her. She thought that God had abandoned her again, but slowly she realizes that she can sit, stand, and dance again. Each of the thirty movements shows her journey to meet the divine who helped her. Like the birds in the poem, when she reaches the court of God, she realizes that God was always inside of her. The song playing in the background is “Piano Concerto No. 21” (Elvira Madigan) by Wolfgang Mozart.

I want to thank all the dancers for sharing their talent with me; Professor Asani and Armaan Siddiqi for helping to arrange the performance and workshop; and my beautiful roommate, Hayoung Hwang, for patiently helping me with this project.

Week 12: Literature and Arts as Critique and Resistance

Even though Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran declare themselves as “Islamic States,” the term is elusive because these countries differ in their interpretations of what an Islamic State is. In a lecture, Professor Asani defined Islamists as groups that use Islam as a political ideology usually for a nation-state. They conceive Islam as an a-historical monolith. They implement and institutionalize one interpretation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an, however, is not a political text; it teaches morals and values, not how to create an Islamic State. Even the “state” that the Prophet Muhammad and Sunni Caliphs led were not nation-states. They unified people of diverse cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

These states often strictly enforce their ideologies at the expense of human life and freedom. In July 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup in Pakistan. His administration designed a program of Islamisation to establish a theocratic nation-state. This program had disastrous implications, especially for women and minority groups. In 1979, the government passed the Hudood Ordinances. The law enforced punishments in the Quran and hadiths for qazf (bearing false witness, ex. Theft) and zina (sexual activities ex. Fornication and adultery). It made it especially difficult to prosecute rape and other gender-based violence. Stories of women such as Safia Bibi who was sentenced to fifteen lashes, three years of imprisonment, and a fine while her rapist was found not guilty, especially spurred women’s groups into action. Women Artists also joined this fight for their equal protection under the law.

The title of this painting is, “#SayHerName.” The central image is a figure of a woman that I think most Americans are familiar with. I cut the figure in half because of a quotation from Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first woman to lead a Muslim majority country in modern history, “if today a woman has been declared half a man…it is not because Islam has changed…it is because the rulers [and governing ideology] have changed.” The eyes of the figure seem as though they are crying pools of blood on to the page. The background is filled with the names of Muslim women poets (mostly Pakistani) such as Kishwar Naheed, Fahmida Riaz, and Sara Shagufta. There are also seven quotations from poems by them in the background. At the center, where her heart would be, is an excerpt from “The Interrogator” by Fahmida Riaz, “What should be our statement? /Our suffering/Is hard to reveal/What the heart has endured/Impossible to recount.” In America, the #SayHerName movement aims to raise awareness about the violence black women face in the country. I wanted to connect these intercultural and intergenerational struggles in this painting.

Week 13: Islamic Hip hop and Punk Rock

Link to the song: https://youtu.be/sdVWP7U9iDs

In the contemporary America imagination, Islam is perceived as a recent phenomenon associated with the influx of immigrants from the Muslim world. However, according to scholars, Muslims may have been in America as early as 1543. Scholars estimate that upwards of 15 percent of the African slaves brought to America were Muslims. Some of these Muslim slaves were seen as a threat to the institution of slavery because they were highly literate in Arabic. Their literacy challenged the premise that slave owners could own black bodies because black people had no civilization and were subhuman. Omar ibn Said was one of these literate African Muslims. Said was born around 1770 in Futa Toro (modern Senegal) where he learned how to read and write in Arabic. He was captured when he 37 years-old, brought to South Carolina and remained in bondage until his death in 1864. Even though he converted to Christianity in 1821, his Muslim faith remained with him for the rest of his life.

The legacy of Muslim slaves in American can be found in music. In a lecture, historian Sylviane Anna Diouf showed her audience the similarities between the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, and American Blues music. Blues is a music genre created by African-Americans who lived in the Deep South. It influenced other genres such as soul. One of my favorite soul songs is “A Change is Gonne Come” by Sam Cooke. The song was inspired by his experiences of racial discrimination in America. Even more than fifty years later, the line “It’s been a long time coming, but I know change is gonna come,” still inspires black people in America to continue fighting for racial justice.

For this last creative piece, I wanted to tell a global story of unity. The title of this song is, “To God We Return.” It begins with the musical introduction from “Tajdar-e-Haram” performed by the Pakistani singer Atif Aslam and the basmala (“In the name of God the merciful and compassionate). Then I recite a translation of verse 2:177 from the Qur’an with Cooke’s song beginning in the background. This quotation identifies qualities of people that cut across religious and cultural lines. Next, I recite a translation of the poem “Andak Andak” by the Persian poet and mystic Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi. This poem describes groups of people slowly arriving at the primordial Covenant (Day of Alast) back to God. I end with verse 2:156 “Verily we come from God and to God we return” and the basmala. Even though I am not religious, the message here is, despite all the challenges that we face on Earth, we all came from one God, and the day we will come when we go back to the Day of Alast to join God. Once we are with God, the change will finally come, and we all be free.